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Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life at the Design Museum

This summer, the Design Museum celebrates the life and work of twentieth-century interior architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, marking the 25th anniversary of the museum's first Perriand exhibition in 1996. The Conran Shop visited the retrospective to explore the career of the great innovator, and we found ourselves immersed in her modernist utopia.

A trailblazing designer who reinvented the modernist movement, Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) paved the way for many designers who have followed in her footsteps. Alongside other renowned names of the 1950s, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Perriand pioneered modular furniture, epitomising the ideal of art in function.

Celebrated as one of the twentieth-century greats, Perriand's journey to success was not typical for a woman at the time. Exhibition curator Justin McGuirk notes, "The world of modern architecture and design in the twentieth century was very much about the individual male genius… One of the reasons women were marginalised in that period is because there was a sense of them being associated with the interior and soft furnishings." This was made evident in Le Corbusier's initial rejection of Perriand when she presented him with her portfolio in 1927, rebuffing her with the infamous retort, "We don't embroider cushions here." Le Corbusier quickly recanted this statement and hired Perriand just a few months later, after her innovative 'The Bar Under the Roof' installation at the Salon d'Automne convinced him of her talent.

Place Saint Sulpice Drawing
A sketch of the Place Saint-Sulpice apartment
A recreation of the Place Saint-Sulpice apartment

Perriand was responsible for not only overcoming the domestic female stereotype, but for reinventing the domestic domain entirely. The term 'interior architect' did not exist at the time; a designer was either an 'architect' responsible for the structural integrity of a space or an 'interior designer,' accountable for the objects within.

Perriand embodied a more holistic approach to spatial design, as explained by McGuirk: "Her manifesto was that architecture, design and art go hand in hand; there's a harmony between them that she was always striving for. Furniture, therefore, has an architectural purpose." Perriand always thought spatially, considering the piece in its context as well as in itself. She used furniture to divide space, employing the newly popular open-plan environment and creating a flexible living arrangement that made the most of compact modern homes.

Perriand's cantilevered Bamboo collection
The inviting Double Chaise Longue

Prioritising the belief that architecture should meet human needs, Perriand strived to prove that good design is for everyone. She was enthused by the social mission of modern architecture and, whilst preoccupied with the need to create exceptional design-led pieces, Perriand constantly considered the practical day-to-day concerns of homeowners. Her practise rejected the heavy and ornate 'bourgeois' furniture fashionable at the time, coining the term 'modern equipment' to describe her streamlined, simplistic and sculptural aesthetic. Perriand's debut collection was considered alarmingly affordable compared to her contemporaries, and one cannot help but note the irony in these pieces now fetching six-figure sums at collectors' auctions.

All images courtesy of the Design Museum

As noted by contemporary designer Ilse Crawford CBE, longevity was a fundamental principle of Perriand's work: "Charlotte herself talked about how important it was to create furniture and interiors as subtle, complex and sensitive as the human body. She saw that as the task, to create forms that would last into the future, and evolve." It seems impossible to deny the success of this mission, given Perriand's illustrious career and the legacy left behind. We see the echoes of her work in many new and emerging ideas, and her collaborative, multi-disciplinary spirit plays an enduring role in the way we live today.

The 'Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life' exhibition is now over, but you can still visit the Design Museum to discover the latest in design.